The hands of the Tissot-branded watch on the media center’s IMAX screen slowly line up at the number 12. A few hundred meters away, at Shanghai’s Mercedes Benz Arena, a crowd of thousands counts down to the beginning of this year’s Singles’ Day Festival. Sharply at midnight, the screen changes, and now we see a counter spring into action, keeping track of the total value of the sales made during the holiday.
The numbers rush up from zero, and keep rising at an insane velocity. The gross merchandise volume (GMV) passes 10 billion RMB ($1.5 billion) in about three minutes. Soon after, Jack Ma joins a room full of buzzed journalists and Alibaba personnel. He walks in with a halo of photographers around him, accompanied by Jet Li and other co-stars of his martial arts movie, Gong Shou Dao.
They sit in the first row and watch the number on the counter climb further, without stopping for a second. Ma welcomes colleagues, accepts congratulations, then leans forward and keeps his eyes glued to the screen, on what is set to be another Alibaba record. He seems satisfied.
As it turns out, rightfully so: Singles’ Day, which formally started only nine years ago, is now the shopping day with the biggest revenue and scope around the world, far ahead of Cyber Monday and Black Friday in the US. The 2017 kickoff gala, supervised by veteran TV producer David Hill, led up the start of the sales boom, and succeeded by showcasing the very essence and appeal of the holiday: shopping as entertainment.
Don’t be fooled: this gala was not simply a television broadcast. The four-hour-long show went to great lengths to immerse its viewers, who had already been groomed to the interactive spectacle with Alibaba’s augmented reality game, Catch the Cat. During the show, various features on Alibaba’s flagship Tmall app provided users with opportunities to interact with the gala by shaking their phones and winning prizes, and voting on whether sports celebs such as Luis Figo and Maria Sharapova would succeed at completing various on-stage challenges. Other AR features literally enabled stars of the gala to jump off the stage, right into the living rooms of the at-home audience.
“Expectations keep getting higher, so we must work harder,” said Alibaba Vice Chairman Joe Tsai at a press conference leading up to the gala. “This is one of the biggest spectator events in the world, and we are going to make it fun for everyone.”
Hours later, his promise was fulfilled.
The gargantuan show managed to pack the Mercedes Benz Arena in Shanghai with thousands of spectators, many of whom presumably had already filled up their online shopping carts and caught as many virtual cats as humanly possible. Lighting sticks and phones are up in the air as the star-studded gala kicks off, and it marches on for more than four hours. Thanks to the many interactive features and the never-ending rotation of international stars, it never really drags or slows down. It is dazzling, wall-to-wall entertainment, and once again, it manages to draw in more viewers than the Super Bowl through TV channels and the official stream on video site Youku.
One of the first celebrities to grace the stage in US singer Jesse J. She performs her most famous song, “Price Tag.” The words of the refrain — It’s not about the money, money / We don’t need your money, money — ring a bit ironic as part of a show celebrating an event set to break every sales record ever, but her lively performance brings to mind Alibaba’s true credo: that what is even more important than the value of sales is how Singles’ Day manages to bring together companies and consumers from all walks of life, from all around the world; that no matter who we are, shopping and entertainment are among our common needs. A huge part of Alibaba’s success this year is due to the fact that they realize this better than perhaps any other company on the globe.
A lot of the performers at the event seem to vibe with this notion. Some of the musical performances are even framed around songs written specifically for the occasion by high-level celebrities. The refrain of a hip hop song — When I say Jack Ma / Put your hands in the air — echoes through the arena. The roaring crowd is happy to oblige.
Even Pharrell Williams has his own anthem for the night. After singing his iconic hit “Happy,” he performs a brand new song titled “Wish You a Happy 11.11,” in a duet with Canadian-Chinese singer Kris Wu. It’s no coincidence that Pharrell is so involved — he has his own clothing line set to debut on Singles’ Day, and is perhaps the most invested guest star in the entire gala.
Sadly, not all the performers at the gala are so electric. Famed NYC-based ensemble Blue Man Group gives a short show, but their well-practiced acrobatics pale in comparison with the performances of more magnetic celebrities. And if Pharrell is the most invested guest, let’s take note of the least invested one as well: poor, poor Luis Figo.
The Portuguese soccer player — once a central figure of a sweeping feud between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona that climaxed with an actual pig’s head being thrown at him on the field — seems to be down on his luck here as well. He appears in an all-branded outfit, visibly at unease with the soccer field set, complete with a robotic goalkeeper on the stage. “I love shopping,” is all he can utter before the automated goalie defends all three of his attempts to score. None of those who made bets on the Tmall app hoping he could land the shots are making any money now.
Gong Shou Dao, Jet Li’s New Short Film, is Now Streaming for Free
Despite lags like these scattered throughout the lengthy runtime, the show ends on an explosive note with the appearance of Jack Ma and a look at his movie, Gong Shou Dao. The short film, produced by Jet Li and Ma, features eleven of the world’s most renowned practitioners of martial arts, including Li himself, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and Wu Jing, and has more on its mind than simply being a kung fu movie. This is clear before we even see a single frame from it: the gala preview is introduced by a stunning Nicole Kidman, who hails GSD as an intersection between martial arts and the art of movies, promising something truly extraordinary.
“Art is the ceaseless pursuit of what is pure,” Kidman says as she introduces Jack Ma’s career as a producer, actor, and worldwide promoter of tai chi. The aim of GSD is just that: using the publicity of 11.11 to raise awareness of this ancient art, and to bring it to all corners of the globe. Ma’s ultimate goal is to make tai chi an Olympic sport. He certainly got the world’s attention tonight, even though the movie, which is now streaming in full on Youku and Facebook, doesn’t fully live up to the hype.
Don’t get me wrong: it is a visual treat and great to behold. The choreography and cinematography are pitch perfect, but the restrained length doesn’t allow any kind of plot to unfold. Besides being a spectacle, GSD doesn’t spell out its message clearly enough, and focuses more on the action than on why we should care about the action. It is an admirable attempt from Ma, but it ultimately offers too little to truly become a classic. But hey, we can always hope Jack Ma will return to the world of film sometime in the future, perhaps with a more fully realized vision of martial arts.
Even though Gong Shou Dao is not likely to become a worldwide hit, the gala displayed many more avenues toward a wider global impact. Expansion is a top priority for Alibaba, and the company is already making huge strides. This year, 60,000 of the 140,000 brands taking part in 11.11 were international. Vice Chairman Joe Tsai, besides noting that the core of the holiday is the power of the Chinese consumer, assures us that the festival will keep going global, primarily towards developing countries in Southeast Asia, where there are better circumstances for Alibaba’s e-commerce system to take root.
But it’s not like the West cannot learn anything from the festival. In the States and in Europe, we keep commercializing holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day, while still maintaining the pretense that the most important aspects of these holidays are their traditional roots.
In China, we have Singles’ Day: a holiday that is openly, shamelessly about consumption, that manifests itself by throwing away any proxies or pretenses about being anything else than what it really is. But Jesse J’s refrain still rings true — Singles’ Day is togetherness achieved through consumption, not in spite of it. And if you don’t agree, just take a look at the numbers: Singles’ Day is now bigger, by GMV, than Valentine’s Day. It is bigger than Easter. It is arguably bigger than Christmas. You may think this is a unique achievement, or you may think that we are now living in an episode of Black Mirror, but it doesn’t changes the facts: Singles’ Day is here to stay, and it’s only getting bigger.
After the counter reaches the 10 billion RMB mark, the IMAX screen spells out the message: “We are just getting started.” Is this a promise, or a threat? I can’t resist thinking about the word “全球” (quanqiu; global), the word I’ve been hearing more throughout the day and the gala than any other expression.
Singles’ Day operates with a different mindset than any other holiday. It is about consumption. But it is also about entertainment, about Catching the Cat, about engaging offline and online, about coming together and interacting through venues we’d never thought would open up for us. It is peak capitalism born in a Communist country; it is revenue consolidated with community. Consumer Communism, if you will. But one look at Jack Ma — still dressed in his Gong Shou Dao costume, eyes locked on the revenue counter — suggests that he is willing to take this holiday beyond any existing definition.
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